I’m in imminent danger of physical attack. I don’t know where it’s coming from. I don’t know who is doing it. But within the next few seconds I’m going to have to make a choice between fight or flight.
My body is flushed with epinephrine and noradrenaline. My heart pounds, my muscles jitter, I feel sick to my stomach. I am hypersensitive to every sound, knowing it presages an incoming attack – voices, car engines, footsteps. I am ready to face a life-and-death struggle that is about to tear my world apart.
Except I’m not in any danger, at all. I am completely safe. I just think and feel as though my life is on the line.
I’m having an episode of PTSD – locked in something called hyperarousal – and boy, it’s the worst I’ve ever had. I’m on high alert, expecting any minute, any second, to be the victim of actual bodily harm. And knowing it’s not real does nothing to stop my body behaving as if it’s real.
Since there is no threat, no fight and no flight, these hormones, this stress reaction, can’t dissipate, keeping me stuck on the edge of the precipice, bursting with energy, muscles twitching, bowels emptying. Then it turns inwards, pushing me into panic, tightening my chest, making it a struggle to breathe. Hypervigilant for signs of danger, my nerves stretched to breaking point, terrified every second that I’m being attacked.
It has been five days now and I can’t switch it off, no matter how many times I tell myself that I’m safe. I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t think about anything other than my fear and the danger I feel I’m in.
Five days I’ve been jumping at every noise – doors closing, a neighbour’s TV, my stomach rumbling. Paranoid, now, after so long, that people really mean me harm. Hearing threats in the cooing of pigeons; in the screams of foxes; in the wind blowing through the trees. Interpreting every outside stimulus as though it’s going to kill me.
I’m terrified, exhausted, unable to function, trembling as I force myself to cook dinner, unable to eat more than a mouthful. Midnight, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock, the hands circle the dial and I go around with it, wired, strung out, nauseous.
Nothing distracts me. This is like being stuck in a horror film – being hunted by a shadow through a haunted house with all the exits nailed shut and escape a diminishing possibility.
I’ve tried to run. I took myself into the countryside to escape from my thoughts. I tried to practice mindfulness and meditation while communing with nature – anything to get my body to calm down, regulate itself, and revert back to its proper state. All I did was obsess over every potential danger I might be in or might ever be in.
I know I’m not in any danger, but my body acts as though I am and my mind follows suit, imagining dangers so visceral that I get into a feedback loop of bad feelings leading to bad thoughts to bad feelings to bad thoughts, over and over, forever escalating, never shutting down.
I manage my life to avoid potential triggers. I’m successful for months at a time. It lies dormant for months, and then it’s suddenly triggered, and I am back there again, back in the trauma, reacting as though it’s all happening again.
I know what triggered it this time: I said “No” to my ex, my abuser, provoking a slew of text messages, followed immediately by hearing the man upstairs shouting at his wife. Two events – a handful of angry and manipulative text messages, and a voice raised in anger – neither of which places me in harm’s way, and neither of which should be anything more than a nuisance and an annoyance. Yet together, they unlocked a door that I was fighting to keep shut.
Since then, I’ve been so on edge, I feel like my mind is falling apart, that my safe space, my home, the thing that was keeping me together, is no longer a haven, it’s been invaded by the anger of the man upstairs, by my ex bringing her abuse into my own living room through my phone, and now every sound is his voice, her voice, the voices of all the traumas I’ve ever experienced, and I’m a child again, lying in bed, paralysed with fear; I’m a teenager, listening to the violence downstairs; I’m in my twenties, locking myself in my room as glass breaks and wood smashes; I’m in my thirties, desperately trying not to say or do anything that might provoke my abuser into exploding on me again, hurting me, or taking it out on the children.
I don’t know what to do. Five days of the worst terror I’ve felt in my life. I’ve thought of asking my doctor for sedatives. I’ve thought of falling to my knees and praying to anything that might listen. I’ve thought of ringing a crisis line to have myself taken to a psych ward, but how would that impact my access to my children? They live with my abuser, the one who caused my PTSD, and she would seize on this as ammunition to take away the only good thing left in my life, like she took away everything else. So what the hell do I do?
Don’t ever underestimate the effect of long-term physical, mental and emotional abuse. Don’t ever think that because someone didn’t go to war, didn’t see people maimed and killed in battle, that they have not been damaged beyond the point they can lead a normal life. These are the struggles we go through, unsupported, ignored, maligned, stigmatised, written off and misunderstood.
I just hope to god I calm down soon.